Jan 19

Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos testifies in Senate

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate HELP Committee on January 17.

On Tuesday evening, January 17, 2017, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee convened a hearing to consider President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Michigan philanthropist and education activist Betsy DeVos. During the course of the nominee’s three hour confirmation hearing, Senators’ questions addressed a wide range of issues from guns in schools to access to career and technical education.

DeVos’ background includes having served as chairwoman of the board of the Alliance for School Choice and directed the All Children Matter Political Action Committee, which she and her husband founded in 2003 to promote school vouchers, tax credits to businesses that give private school scholarships, and candidates who support these causes. She also served as chair of the American Federation for Children (AFC), which describes itself as “a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs.”

In 1989, Betsy DeVos and her husband founded the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. The Foundation’s giving, according to its website, is motivated by faith, and “is centered in cultivating leadership, accelerating transformation and leveraging support in five areas,” namely education, community, arts, justice, and leadership. In addition to a wide range of other programs, the Foundation has supported afterschool programs and providers in Michigan, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids.

The subject of afterschool programs did not come up during the hearing. Questions from senators largely focused on DeVos’ background as an education activist, higher education, accountability, assessment, and protecting the rights of students with disabilities and LGBTQ youth.

Democrats took aim at her large financial donations to anti-union organizations, among others. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations, wrote in an opposition letter to Senate HELP Committee members that it “cannot support a nominee who has demonstrated that she seeks to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and public education itself.” Similar opposition came from other organizations including both national teachers unions as well as the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, the National Council of La Raza, the National Urban League and the American Association of University Women.

Republicans largely focused on the value of an outside perspective leading the Department. In a letter of support for her confirmation, 18 Republican governors praised DeVos as someone who “will fight to streamline the federal education bureaucracy, return authority back to states and local school boards, and ensure that more dollars are reaching the classroom.” Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been particularly vocal in support of DeVos, who sat on the board of Bush’s organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Bush penned an op-ed praising her passion in advocating for local control of education.

Likewise, former Senator Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat turned Independent who serves on the board of the American Federation for Children, which DeVos previously chaired, introduced the nominee to the HELP Committee prior to her testimony.  Lieberman, who is a long-standing supporter of charter schools and voucher programs such as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, spoke in support of her nomination.

The next step in the confirmation process comes later this week when Senators will submit questions to the nominee for her written response. The full Senate is expected to vote on DeVos later this month or early next month.